Syria: “Captagon Diplomacy” and the “Barrel – Chainsaw Embrace”

Hazem El Amin
Lebanese Writer and Journalist

The only Saudi concern in the current talks with Syria seems to halt the influx of Captagon. Yet, observers note that a Syrian concession would be difficult to uphold for Damascus, as producing and selling drugs is virtually the regime’s only source of income.

According to sources closely following Saudi Syrian relations, the Baath regime’s export of the amphetamine-like drug Captagon to the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, was the most important matter in the recently opened talks between the two nations. This would suggest that Damascus’ “Captagon diplomacy” has started to pay off. 

Instead of voicing reservations, the Syrian “negotiator” somehow acknowledged that the manufacturing and export of Captagon pills is indeed a bargaining chip. It serves as both a means of funding for the regime at home and a source of power in the region.

When they accepted the Iranian request to open up to the Syrian regime, the Saudis believed their main concern was controlling the flow of drugs into their country through the shared borders with Jordan and Iraq. 

The spread of Captagon among young people has seemingly coincided with the Saudi regime’s efforts to establish more social openness.

According to sources familiar with Saudi  ideology, Riyadh and Tehran came to an understanding, as they felt a truce would offer Riyadh a bigger economic playing field, and give Tehran a chance to catch its breath amidst the US-led blockade and sanctions targeting the country.

According to these same sources, the truce is thought to last for some two years, after which, given the weight and importance of the files, new challenges are likely to arise. 

They indicated that controlling the Houthis’ missile capabilities in Yemen is what matters most to Saudi Arabia. Controlling this will make it easier for Riyadh to take further steps in the “entertainment mission” it has embarked on. 

The two coming years will arguably witness significant shifts in alliances. The Saudi objective with regard to Iraq and Syria is restricted to securing the borders regarding the Captagon convoys being sent to the Kingdom. Lebanon reportedly does not  feature among the Saudis’ most pressing concerns.

Saudi Arabia did not impose any requirements on Damascus regarding the Syrian interior. Even topics, which had previously been connected to Arab reservations about the Syrian regime’s return to the “Arab sphere,” were removed. 

Neither the Syrian constitution nor the refugees, much less so the forcefully disappeared, and not even the future of the country’s opposition were discussed in the negotiations.

For Iran it seems simple to assure the Saudis that their borders with Yemen will be safe and sound, as long as the Houthis continue to rule Sana’a. As for Syria, Tehran knows that the Syrian regime is a committed ally and that Gulf efforts to win over Damascus’ support are mere illusions. Furthermore, there is little doubt that Iran’s power in Lebanon and Iraq will remain unaffected.

With Chinese support for the negotiations, Captagon’s “diplomatic role” was acknowledged by both the Syrian and Saudi side. Beijing is a relative newcomer to the world of negotiation and mediation, and does not have the same sensitivity towards drug files as a Western arbiter. Also, Bejoing does not comply with obligations under international law to refrain from sponsoring negotiations between countries that use drugs as a bargaining chip.

Having said that, observers note that a Syrian concession in the Captagon file, if it occurs, would not be easy for the regime to uphold, as selling drugs is virtually the country’s only source of income.  

Western estimates of Syria’s drug revenues are unlikely to be accurate. The reported figure of $50 billion is suspicious. According to observers, the amount is more likely to amount to some US$ 12 billion, which is still more than Jordan’s 2023 government budget.

The scene as sketched above gives rise to the theory that drugs have entered the negotiations between states as a new factor to be reckoned with. 

What is taking place between Damascus and Riyadh is the result of a “rogue” performance between a “chainsaw” and “barrel” regime, supported by dissident international rule and far removed from what the international community has agreed upon as minimum values and conditions of international relations. 

A new alternative global order, which welcomes Captagon as a negotiation card between one regime that produces and another that sees its people consume it.

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